LOIZA, Puerto Rico — One month after Hurricane Maria pummeled this oft-overlooked piece of the United States, the mayor of Loiza is just one of many who has her hands full picking up the pieces.
Julia Nazario had barely been in office nine months when the storm struck her community of 30,000 people on the island’s northeast coast.
She ticks through the grim picture:
Two hundred ninety eight families lost their homes completely. Another 596 lost their roofs, essentially making their homes uninhabitable. Add in other damage from wind and flooding and the tally of unlivable dwellings reaches 3,000, she said.
Loiza has no electricity. The water system comes and goes, but even when it comes, the residents are afraid to drink it because of contamination.
Worse than all that is the despair that the mayor said is taking hold among residents as time passes with no real relief in sight.
As Nazario gave a tour of her town’s most devastated areas Thursday to U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez and me, I found my mind wandering to all the similarly affected places across Puerto Rico we won’t see on this trip.
In many ways, the damage we’ve witnessed in any one location from Hurricane Maria and its 140-mile-per-hour winds is not as jaw-dropping as the destruction I’ve seen from a single tornado shredding its vicious swath through a central Illinois town.
But what makes a hurricane so frightening, and this one in particular, is its awesome scope. There’s damage like this at untold locations from one end of Puerto Rico to the other — from the beaches to the mountains.
And the recovery goes slowly because at least 80 percent of Puerto Rico is without power, a result of extensive damage to an already seriously deficient electrical grid. It is expected to take months to fix, and in the meantime, water and sewer systems that rely on electricity for pumping remain compromised.
Gutierrez says he can better sense the extent of the problem at night driving through the darkness in places where he knows there should be lights, on highways lined in stray places with cars pulled to the shoulder to take advantage of good cell phone reception.
On Thursday, Gutierrez arranged for two truckloads of supplies to be delivered to Loiza’s baseball stadium, the concourse turned into a supply center from which the town delivers food, water and other necessities to residents.
The donated goods were purchased at a Sam’s Club in San Juan with funds raised by the Puerto Rican Agenda, a Humboldt Park group allied with the Chicago congressman and the Puerto Rican independence movement.
I really can’t speak to whether President Donald Trump’s response to the disaster rates a “10” as he said Thursday. But if he thinks matters are under control, he is seriously mistaken, regardless of what the governor of Puerto Rico told him in their meeting.
What I can tell you is that the mayor of Loiza said she has received as much or more help from a Jewish synagogue in San Juan and other charitable donors such as the Chicagoans than from any government source.
Even as federal assistance in meeting short-term needs such as food and water improves, she said, the housing picture remains bleak.
Those without roofs could at least return home if she could get enough heavy duty tarps and some help erecting them. For those whose homes were destroyed, “there’s nothing,” Nazario said.
What makes the situation particularly grim in Loiza is that its inhabitants are very poor, even by Puerto Rico’s standards.
In Loiza we came across an uprooted emajagulla tree that had crashed through the roof of a house, whose residents had abandoned it with their belongings still inside.
Nazario said the old tree had stood through hurricanes Hugo in 1989 and Georges in 1998, maybe even San Felipe Segundo in 1928, one of the deadliest hurricanes in history.
But like the rest of Puerto Rico, it couldn’t handle Maria.